When I was five years old, my parents schlepped their three children six hours by van to Budapest, Hungary, for diagnostic and achievement testing at an education conference for third culture kids. (We were living in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It was one of those things Americans living abroad do to make sure their homeschooled kids are on the “right track.”) My dad had high expectations for me. “I’m telling you,” he’d say, “this kid is really smart.”
“What are you talking about?” my mother responded, shaking her head. “She still puts her underwear on backwards.”
I was newly twenty-five the first time I heard this story; my parents were visiting us in Boston for the first time. They tend to tell the same anecdotes over and over, so it astounded me that there could be any such incident in my childhood not already codified into family lore. (When we first started dating, Nathan was pleased that my parents told new stories every time he saw them. A few years later, he realized that “I just hadn’t made it through their full repertoire.”) This seemed like precisely the sort of story we’d be likely to recycle: a compliment wrapped in a joke, or the other way around. A story that would be, for its subject, more embarrassing than anything else.
Perhaps the occasion warranted a retrospective on my early scholastic achievements: Mom and Dad were visiting for my graduation from Boston College. I think they meant the anecdote to be congratulatory, but I was a little horrified. At five, I was all but trilingual. I had taught myself to read. To my father’s credit, I did, in fact, test splendidly on whatever puzzles the education consultant placed in front of me. And twenty years later, I was another underemployed liberal arts graduate with a Masters degree in the humanities and no real direction beyond the hope of a money-sucking PhD in something equally impractical. I was still—proverbially—putting my underwear on backwards, this time under formal graduation garb.
At the ceremony, I itched in my rented robe and cheap polyester Masters hood and struggled to feel “proud.” It felt very much as if anyone could do what I’d done, given the same resources and privileges. If anything, the pomp and circumstance served as a depressing reminder of all the ways in which I was ordinary. I’d written a few acceptable papers. Met a few low bars for Spanish proficiency and broad knowledge of Anglophone literature. Racked up the required number of credits. Jess captioned her photo of us “fellow Grey’s, Scandal and SVU enthusiast,” perhaps a more accurate reflection of what I actually spent those two years doing. None of it felt like an achievement.
If it was, it was only the achievement of accumulated choices. Mostly bad ones, but not that bad. Some good ones, but not that good. Nothing that deserved a certificate.
This is—alas, alack—what I’m learning (again?) in another, later season of life: my own inescapable humanity. I am relentlessly myself even when that feels wholly insufficient, even when I’d rather be anyone else on earth, even when I’d rather disappear than account for what sometimes feels like a waste of all that five-year-old potential. In the twenty-one years since the test, I’ve just accumulated a bunch of choices. What is it that I plan to do with my one wild and precious life, Mary Oliver? I plan to watch British crime dramas when I should be writing. I plan to spend a lot of time feeling cripplingly guilty about that. I plan to be ten minutes late for every social engagement, even when I know I’ll be mad about it the whole way there.
As Dumbledore says, “It is our choices that make us who we are, far more than our abilities.” I’m still not sure what it means to be “smart,” to have—or to have had, present perfect—“potential,” as measured by an aptitude test I took more than twenty years ago. I don’t know how to evaluate whether or not I’ve lived up to those high expectations. I’ve been asking myself those questions since 1997, and it feels very much as though I’ve just kept putting my underwear on backwards (metaphorically; I do want to stress that) since then.
Perhaps my first mistake was expecting that I would ever entirely grow out of it.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.